Reel Talk: ‘I beat Meryl!’

November 12, 2014

In a few short weeks, actors, directors, producers, and film crews will be tuning in to hear their names presented as nominees for major accolades in next year’s awards season.

The need for validation isn’t exclusive to Hollywood, though—I wanted to win awards in grade school as much as the next guy. But the Oscars, Golden Globes, and even the Razzies aren’t some measly certificate printed on fancy paper. They are the ultimate sign of innovation and success in filmmaking.

The industry is notoriously difficult to break into. Like in Capitol Hill’s dynastic industry, legacies prove to be invaluable in Hollywood. Though Nicolas Cage would have you think that changing his name from Nicolas Coppola makes him a self-made national treasure, the connections he has through his relatives have made huge contributions to his success. One of the earliest films he starred in under the name Nicolas Cage was directed by his revered uncle, Francis Ford Coppola.

Cage aside, one of the major debates in the awards community is whether or not to nominate young persons for awards.

Quvenzhane Wallis became the youngest actress ever to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress, recognized for her beautiful portrayal of Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Not everyone was happy to hear about her nomination for one of the biggest awards in the industry.

In an article for The Atlantic, Scott MacDonald, chief film critic at The Toronto Standard, criticized the possibility of Wallis being nominated. “Acting requires some intentionality on the part of the actor, some conscious effort to adopt a persona other than his or her own.”

During much of the filming of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Wallis was only 6 years old. “Wallis is hugely magnetic, but what she does in Beasts is not acting. She’s a kid, and she just ‘is,’” MacDonald said.

In the battle for the Oscar, Wallis was up against  22 year-old Jennifer Lawrence, 35 year-old Jessica Chastain, 44 year-old Naomi Watts, and 85 year-old Emmanuelle Riva. Ultimately, Silver Linings Playbook’s Lawrence took home the award.

Lawrence was no stranger to the awards, having been active since 2008. She had already been nominated for one award before—in 2010 for her role in Winter’s Bone. But did she deserve the Oscar as much as Emmanuelle Riva, who has been on screen since 1959?

The debate MacDonald raised was not about experience, but rather about age itself. In his view, Wallis was not acting by mere virtue of her age. At 6, there is no such thing as acting, only being.

Initially, I agreed with MacDonald. The amount of energy that Lawrence, Chastain, Watts, and Riva have put into their film repertoire is certainly one that cannot be matched by Wallis in one film. Certainly, Wallis had a different experience putting herself into the role of Hushpuppy. Perhaps her imagination gave her an edge in putting herself into this role. But that isn’t what these awards are about at all.

Just because you flip a coin once and get heads doesn’t mean that the next time it’s going to be tails—the odds are reset every time. Similarly, just because Wallis wasn’t as established as her older peers doesn’t mean that she wasn’t as capable of acting or deserving of awards.

I wasn’t angry or upset to find out that Wallis had not won the Best Actress award. Giving her the award because of her age would completely invalidate her nomination. But even if she had won, it would be hard to play it off as a mere handout. Her natural gestures and perfectly delivered dialogue were unquestionably better than the kind of acting we’ve seen by stars like Adam Sandler, a guy who has been in the industry since 1989.

Though not everyone will give her the credit she deserves, there is a sense of accomplishment in Wallis’ nomination. In spite of the backlash, at least Hushpuppy knows her own worth. “They gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy, and she live with her daddy in the Bathtub.”

Dayana Morales Gomez
Dayana Morales Gomez is the former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Voice. She graduated from the School of Foreign Service.

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